By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas linebackers coach Reggie Johnson hasn’t forgotten Jerry Franklin’s first game.
Like many members of the new-look defense, Franklin was pressed into a starting role much too early.
"His head was spinning," Johnson said with a laugh.
Fast forward three years and Franklin will cap his third season as a defensive starter when the Razorbacks play Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4. The junior’s play hasn’t always been perfect. Or pretty. But Franklin can latch onto an impressive feat if he continues to accomplish what he has managed all season.
Franklin, the team’s middle linebacker, leads Arkansas with 93 tackles after the regular season. He has 10 more than teammate Jerico Nelson. If he remains on top of the tackle chart after the Sugar Bowl, Franklin will have led Arkansas in tackles three consecutive seasons.
It has happened only one other time at Arkansas since statistics were kept dating back to 1960. Former Razorback linebacker Mick Thomas did it from 1989-1991 and Franklin would like to equal the mark.
"That means a lot to me," Franklin said after Tuesday’s practice. "I take pride in that, being a middle linebacker and leading the team in tackles."
Franklin has served as a rock in the middle of Arkansas’ defense, starting 36 of his 37 games.
His career hasn’t always gone smoothly. He was ejected from the Georgia game in 2009 and his absence played a hand in the loss. Franklin has spent ample time in coach Bobby Petrino’s doghouse, too. And he spent last spring working in the weight room while his teammates practiced because he hadn’t met offseason goals.
But his importance on game day hasn’t been debated.
"Jerry is our quarterback," Arkansas safety Rudell Crim said. "Jerry is always dedicated to us. Whatever the coaches need him to do, whatever the players need him to do, he’s always doing it.
"We can’t ask for anything better than that."
Franklin was elected a team captain this season and has been a big part of a defense that enjoyed an impressive turnaround after two years of struggles.
Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said the improvement had plenty to do with Arkansas’ growth on the defensive line. Franklin also believes Arkansas’ linebacking corps, which was labeled a weak spot in the preseason, took care of its responsibilities as well.
"That seemed to be the question all year," Franklin said. "Everybody was worried about the linebacker corps. We got guys that stepped up and did a good job."
Franklin included. He enjoyed a 20-tackle performance in the win at Mississippi State last month. It was the fourth-highest total in the NCAA this season and also was the most for an Arkansas player since 2002.
Franklin was named the Southeastern Conference’s defensive player of the week for his efforts.
"He has the desire to be a good football player," said Johnson, who added Franklin remains a work in progress. "He understands he’s in a position to be one of the better guys to play here when you talk about (Quinton) Caver and (Sam) Olajubutu and those guys. I think he understands where he fits or where he can possibly see himself considered in the same breath as those guys."
For now, Franklin said he’s only concerned about leading the Razorbacks to a win in the Sugar Bowl.
Then he’ll turn his sites toward next season. The linebacker is draft eligible, but shrugged off a question about the NFL by saying he’ll be back in 2011.
It also means, if everything continues to go as planned, Franklin will have an opportunity to lead Arkansas in tackles for four consecutive seasons.
"Jerry has been a great kid and he’s got one more year," Johnson said. "That’s a good thing."
S Elton Ford missed his second straight practice with an unknown injury. Ford was working with Arkansas’ strength and conditioning staff while the rest of his teammates practiced Tuesday. ... LB Braylon Mitchell didn’t practice after suffering what appeared to be a head injury during Monday’s practice.
... Arkansas will practice today and Thursday before the team is released to go home for Christmas.
Who: Ohio State (11-1, 8-1 in Big Ten) vs. Arkansas (10-2, 6-2 in Southeastern Conference)
What: 2011 Sugar Bowl
When: Jan. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans
Series Record: First Meeting
Coaches: Arkansas — Bobby Petrino (23-14 in third season); Ohio State — Jim Tressel (105-22 in 10th season)